How much of a Consumerist are you?

Some people still believe that, to be happy, we need to accumulate things. Shopping malls have become the destination of choice for human entertainment, in turn making our regions economically dependent on department stores.

Have you ever wondered where so Coltan from DRCmuch of what we buy, mostly needlessly, comes from and goes? The system of production and consumption on our planet begins with extraction. You get the necessary natural resources (minerals, water, wood, etc.) from all over the world taken to manufacturing centres. There they are combined with synthetic products, and energy is invested to produce anything from clothing to appliances. So far, so clear.

Yet there are two basic problems with this system. First, there are not enough natural resources in the world to meet the current demand of Western consumption. The USA, with only 5 per cent of the global population, uses about 30 per cent of the world’s resources. Clearly, if other countries follow these rates of consumption – and there are several that threaten to do so including India and China – our resources will run out much sooner than we think.

Second, the world’s largest corporations have amassed so much power that they’re increasingly difficult to regulate. According to the consultancy Global Trends, of the world’s 150 largest economies only 41 per cent are countries; the rest are corporations.

There are various drawbacks to this situation, from the terrible working conditions for employees in developing countries, to the destruction of valuable  natural resources without compensation. All this to produce shoes, watches and tablets as quickly and cheaply as possible to satisfy the  demand of global consumers.

Although consumption trends are high in many countries (Germany leads in  Europe, while the growth in some Persian Gulf countries is astounding), the USA has topped the list since the times of Victor Lebow. This analyst theorized that for the large US economy to maintain its robustness, it would need to make consumption a permanent part of the US lifestyle.

It is seriously difficult to understand prices in US malls. How  can a buyer know how much was earned by the Chinese boy who assembled the product by hand? If he was offered social security and health benefits? How much did the fuel cost to bring it from China to Rotterdam to Florida? If it is an electronic device, where did the Coltan come from? And how much was paid to farmers who extracted it? If this mineral – vital for cell phones and games consoles – came from D.R. Congo, did it come stained with blood?

We do not have sufficient space to address the last link in this consumer system: the inevitably gigantic quantities of waste generated. But the message is clear, responsible citizenship requires us, at the very least, to ask ourselves again and again if we really need that new item that we are about to buy.

Although modern advertising may suggest the opposite, and those who call us  ‘ecocentric’ are everywhere, it is worth pursuing sustainable lifestyles. Ultimately, parks and fellow humans are worth more than shopping malls and corporations. Because our quality of life doesn’t depend on our level of consumption!

by Carlos Cadena Gaitán, PhD fellow at Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and UNU-MERIT. First published in El Mundo, 9 April 2012. Translated from the Spanish by Howard Hudson. Image: Flickr / Enoughproject

Coffee House Economists

One of my favourite articles from The Economist in 2011 is entitled ‘Back to the Coffee House’ (7 July 2011). The piece is not (at least directly) an ode to the world’s most coveted beverage, but rather a recognition that information and communication technology has now made communication more sociable, direct, open and integrated into daily life. Much as the situation was 300 years ago before the rise of printed newspapers.

Then, as The Economist writes “news travelled by word of mouth or letter, and circulated in taverns and coffee houses in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides”. Today, with the circulation of printed papers declining, news is travelling increasingly via Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email, texts, and internet sites.

How and what we communicate through these social media and other high-tech pamphlets, newsletters and broadsides have in 2011 been major topics of conversation in our virtual coffee shops, from the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks media leaks, to the News of the World hacking scandal.

Even academics seem to have caught on in 2011, with Jason Priem writing on the LSE’s Impact of Social Science’s Blog that scholars are slowly but surely undertaking “a great migration to online publishing”.

For economics, this can only be a good thing. Following the global financial crisis, the economics profession itself came in for stinging criticism. Academic economists have become, locked in their academic ivory-towers, largely out of touch with policy and practice.

Mark Thomas calls this the ‘Great Disconnect’, remarking that “as the ties between academic economists and the practitioners who use the models and techniques they produce have diminished, the questions economists ask have drifted away from the questions of most interest to society. To a large extent, economics has become separated from its real world users and applications”.

Social media offer economists opportunities to re-connect with society. Despite the growing popularity of a number of economics blogs there is still an undersupply of good economics blogs — and on average only 1 in 40 scholars is on Twitter (see Jason Priem).

This is the conclusion from Berk özler and David McKenzie from the World Bank, who having studied the impacts of 50 economics blogs found that a blog can “transform attitudes about some of the topics it covers”.

Transforming attitudes is a good start if one wants to influence policy and practice. Let us welcome more and more economists – and other scientists for that matter – back into the coffee house in 2012.

Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow, UNU-Maastricht